Bangladesh divided over export of gas to India

DHAKA Aug. 10. The issue of exporting gas to India, which had acquired political overtones, awaits the decision of the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, when she chairs a meeting on August 17.

The Minister for Energy, A.K.M. Mosharraf Hossain, speaking to newsmen said the groundwork had reportedly favoured the export.

"We have enough reserves, but we need investment for further drilling and exploration."

The Minister said the ADB was willing to finance a western region gas pipeline with 1.5 per cent interest rate if a portion of gas was exported.

Meanwhile, just a week ahead of the much-publicised meeting, leading national dailies published reports today suggesting that the Government had decided to "shelve the move to sell gas to India" in view of the high political risks.

Quoting two "influential Government policy-makers," Daily Star and Prothom-Alo, the Government sought public opinion and Opposition parties' reactions.

After a recent high-level policy planners meeting, Ms. Khaleda Zia said the issue involved "high political stakes and should be left alone."

Another daily, Dainik Janakantha, however, said a "strong lobby" within the Government was mobilising opinion against gas export highlighting the "national opposition."

While the left-leaning parties are strongly against export and had already formed a national committee to "resist" it, the Awami League president, Sheikh Hasina's latest assertion was to build up a "united national movement to oust the Government" if the Khaleda Government decided to sell gas.

Top Government leaders feel a decision to export gas to India would be a "political disaster." "The Awami League and the left-leaning parties will not spare the Government if it takes such a decision."

The think tanks of both the Government and the Opposition are also sharply divided. The Awami League Government had six production-sharing contracts and its fifth-five year plan included export.

"Now it (AL) is using the issue to build up an anti-Government movement,'' said the Minister.

In line with an export proposal by the United States firm Unocal, the Energy Ministry has been arguing that if gas was exported on a limited-scale, only 3.6 trillion cubic feet will go out of the country in the next 20 years, but it will offset huge losses. Arguments are also being raised by various quarters that Bangladesh, being the lowest per capita energy consumer, needed the gas reserves for its own consumption.

The national committee on gas use forecast that the reserves would be depleted by 2020, if the GDP growth rate stayed at five per cent and by 2015 or 2016 rose to six per cent.

Some leading newspapers said the ruling BNP has been caught in a "crossfire." The Shell Company had recently withdrawn its business from Bangladesh putting pressure on the Government due to delay in taking a positive decision.

While the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders were silent on the issue, key BNP leaders argued that the Awami League should not oppose any decision on export of gas because "all major groundwork in this regard was done when they were in power."

However, despite the latest anti-export stand, Ms. Sheikh Hasina had favoured gas export "after earmarking a domestic reserve for 50 years."